Slow down, you move too fast.
You got to make the morning last.
Just kicking down the cobble stones,
Looking for fun and feelin’ groovy.
These days, many Beaufortonians just ain’t “feelin’ groovy.” Our city fathers are “movin’ too fast,” bent on developing the downtown marina parking lot, centered in our historic district, into a multi-acre commercial/residential development project.
Already, another car has been linked to this runaway development train, as we learned the Port Republic Square parking lot was optioned for a 400-plus space parking garage. The dominoes are falling quickly; this development freight train is speeding down the tracks full throttle. But are there any brakes, Mr. brakeman?
Beaufort’s National Historic Landmark District -- one of only four in South Carolina -- is the heart and soul of our community. It is special, fragile, irreplaceable, and it must be nursed and nourished with great care. Beaufort’s downtown and waterfront park/marina are the jewels in its shining, historic crown.
The mayor tells us the city’s new Civic Master Plan calls for redevelopment of the marina parking lot into “something” that brings economic vitality to the Historic District. While developers rush to create that “something,” the details of which are yet unknown, I would remind everyone to slow down, to consider the fine print in that age-old contract with Beelzebub Road Paving Company, and to wonder what the principle of unintended consequences will bring us.
One of the four pillars of the building plan found within the recently adopted Civic Master Plan is: “To energize Beaufort’s local economy through the attraction of quality jobs and new investment and through the development or redevelopment of housing for all generations of Beaufortonians.” Quarreling with that is like opposing motherhood, shagging and pecan pie, right?
However, it is fair and reasonable to ask: are there successful developments that would add to Beaufort’s economic vitality that are not “right” for Beaufort’s Historic District? Does adding economic vitality trump all else?
I, for one, think not. And that, at its core, seems to be the flawed keystone of the Civic Master Plan: if it makes sense economically, then by definition it is good and right for Beaufort.
Jim Chaffin, the city’s selected developer for the marina parking lot project, has assured me that he will only develop something that is right for Beaufort. He told me he envisions a vigorous public debate in developing the final plan with appropriate approvals from the Beaufort Redevelopment Commission (phantom agent for the developers), then City Council (expect a 4-to-1 vote to approve any plan), followed by Historic Review Board certification (a notoriously pro-construction board recently called out for its ex-post-facto approval of unpermitted changes to historic structures). Forgive me if I am neither comforted nor reassured by this roadmap.
I believe there might be some modest development that is right for this site. Yet everyone I talk to worries deeply that the economics of developing this prime location would require it to be big! Do we want another monstrosity, such as the commercially- and residentially- unsuccessful condominium building at the foot of the bridge, anchoring the eastern entrance to downtown? A multi-story megalith to block views of the river and marina to serve as a complimentary bookend at the western entrance?
We fear economics will trump aesthetics, modesty and balance. Long after the mayor, City Council, Chaffin and I are fertilizer for the daisies, posterity will have to live with the consequences of any open-heart surgery performed on our precious downtown. Will this development engender a permanent mutation to our Historic District’s DNA? We fear so -- greatly.
As Pogo, the comic strip character, gazed sadly on the trashed swamp he called home, he famously and insightfully observed: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” I believe the city should consider auctioning our soul -- a very serious matter indeed -- only with the greatest caution, humility and wisdom.
No harm, only good, can come from slowing down the process as we consider replacing the marina parking lot, including all the attendant ramifications both known and unknown. Slowing down permits time for communal consent and collective wisdom.
So we say: “Slow down, you move too fast.”
David M. Taub served as Beaufort’s mayor from 1990 to 1999.